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3 February, 2021

OPINION: 'It’s time to seriously look at Qld's water supply'

'Some of our key fruit and vegetable growing areas are coming up against the limits of their reliable water supply (and that’s without the impact of the Paradise Dam fiasco on the prime Bundaberg growing area).'

By Andrew Stewart RURAL LEADER PUBLISHER

When my great grandfather arrived in Brisbane in 1884, he did his six months training in sub-tropical farming at then government farm at Caboolture, moved to his 160 acres near Toowoomba and hand dug a dam.

That hand dug dam still exists holding water.

As an experienced farmer from the muddy, drizzly centre of England, one of the first lessons they were given before starting on their land grant was that in Queensland rain generally came in short, sharp bursts, so dams were critical.

The critical, observant common sense of the early European settlers (just 50 years after John Oxley sailed up the Brisbane River and 15 years after Queensland was declared as a government), seems to be forgotten a century and half later.

Maybe I am biased given my grandfather established the first steam powered irrigation in Queensland in 1922.

But watching the comical efforts of my urban friends and neighbours use the 2020 COVID homestays to try to grow their backyard vegetables has only highlighted their lack of understanding of what it takes to provide a steady stream of food week in, week out through whatever weather conditions.

As an urban friend said, if you could live off chillis, chokos and grass clippings, their family may just have avoided starvation.

Another complained of an $800 water bill to grow a few rows of tomatoes and beans in their backyard. Just the water bill, let alone the cost of plastic bags of mulch and seedlings and garden tools, put their produce at $100 a kilo – only about 20 to 30 times what they whinge about at the supermarket.

For all the earnest talk about self-sufficiency, reducing food miles and the efficacy of backyard gardening, the Covid urban food warriors are a fail.

It just takes too much effort, care, cost and real expertise to grow food efficiently, economically and in time for the nightly dinner table.

So it looks like the professional food and fibre suppliers of Queensland have a future.

For that they need a regular, reliable supply of water (at an affordable price).

Perhaps we need less talk about dams, and just talk about water supply.

I mentioned to the backyard warriors whinging about their water bill that a lettuce is 30 per cent water. They had no idea.

So then I pointed out that if Australia’s population increases by a third of a million a year (perhaps aside from a COVID impacted 2020/21), that’s an increase of more than 200,000 adults (less than half our population increase are babies, most are adults migrants and students). On average they eat half a lettuce a week.

Then I let them do the maths on how much water that is just for one part of their weekly diet.

Some of our key fruit and vegetable growing areas are coming up against the limits of their reliable water supply (and that’s without the impact of the Paradise Dam fiasco on the prime Bundaberg growing area).

I had the opportunity last year to point out to some federal and state MPs that just in vegetables, Queensland needs to increase acreage by about 1100 hectares of land plus four to 12 megalitre of water per hectare a year to feed Australia’s population increase.

But in some regions reliable water supply for horticulture meets its limits in 2022 to 2025.

My point was that throwing a few million here and there to yet another consultancy or review without actually building reliable water supply would ensure major crop shortages within their current term of Parliament.

They had never heard it put like that.

This is despite heroic efforts (and considerable investment on farm by farmers) that has dramatically increased productivity – in some vegetable lines more than twice the saleable product for the litre of water, of diesel, even of land, in the last two decades.

But in most popular foods, the productivity growth is flattening or becoming too expensive when set against a paucity of long term, bankable, sustainable price contracts with supermarkets and major buyers.

To ensure reliable supply of not just popular, but the huge variety of first-class food lines that consumers want, increasingly out of as well as in traditional seasons, requires not just considerable farming smarts, but the certainty of reliable water.

Farmers are considerably more driven by financial analysis, so they aren’t going to invest in the considerable infrastructure to grow more and more productively if they don’t have that absolutely key ingredient to plant growth – water.

My list of ‘get the dozers going today if you want food security this decade’ water supply projects – Urannah Dam (huge supply for running dry Bowen and large potential areas north and west), Hell’s Gate and Rookwood (because they can be done fast, are efficient water storage, albeit the horticulture opportunities need to be nailed down faster), weirs on the Flinders and other northern rivers which could open up both horticulture and higher class beef production – see Brazil for how they do this and also generate hydro electric), and the Southern Downs (perhaps drilling through the basalt may be less problematical than Emu Swamp and other shallow, porous proposals – but have all the water resources been properly considered there? Get moving if Stanthorpe’s horticulture conversion can progress much further).

And don’t forget allowing farmers in suitable areas to develop their own water supply without the largely specious barriers to protect the inefficient, money gobbling government water monopolies.

My great grandfather hand dug his dam. Don’t think he got a permit.

But he did get his land grant stamped and confirmed for building that dam, establishing cropping and fences.

He got on with it and not only fed his growing family, but made enough in the first few years to expand.

At the rate dam approvals are going, we all might need to grab a pick and spade – even the urban backyarders who just turn on a tap, and in crop failure, drive down to the supermarket.

 


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